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Reclaiming Slough: the journey to outstanding social care

Source: PSE Oct/Nov 16

Slough’s social care for children has grappled with a poor reputation since the infamous Ofsted 2014 report, which helped make the case for services to be transferred from the council to an independent trust. But this is all set to change under a brand new way of working, says Nicola Clemo, chief executive of Slough Children’s Services Trust.

Children’s services in Slough have faced a bumpy road since being lambasted in an Ofsted report from February 2014, which rated the service – then provided by the borough council – as ‘inadequate’. The critical report led to an independent Department for Education review assessing the “serious failures” identified by Ofsted inspectors, and eventually culminated in both a change in council leadership and a takeover of its children’s social care services by a not-for-profit company, Slough Children’s Services Trust.

Shortly before PSE went to press, the trust, headed by chief executive Nicola Clemo, had celebrated the anniversary of taking over children’s social care services from the once beleaguered council. This broadly coincided with the official launch of its ‘Safe, Secure, Successful’ social work model, which followed closely in the steps of the ‘Reclaiming Social Work’ system  implemented in Hackney and widely praised in Eileen Munro’s major 2011 review of child protection. 

Reconfiguring the service 

Speaking to us a few hours before an open evening designed to showcase the new social work model, Clemo recognised that “there is still a long way to go”. But she was confident that the trust had already made great strides in improving both its services and Slough’s general reputation in order to attract new and enthusiastic staff. 

A key part of this has been recruiting a “top team” consisting of middle managers, consultant social workers, and both experienced and newly-qualified social workers that help make up the tight-knit employment structure essential to the model’s success. 

“When the trust went fully operational, the thing we wanted to focus on from week one was around practice. Were staff, particularly social workers, configured in a way that aided good social work practice?” Clemo explained. “Historically, it had been very much a case of doing things to families as opposed to working alongside them and bringing about change. 

“A number of practitioners then visited a number of local authorities, including Kensington and Chelsea and Hackney and Stoke, and came back with their ideas about how they would want the social work service to be configured. 

“We want Slough to go from having the worst reputation for its social care services to the best – that is our intention. In the five years we have [left], we’re absolutely going for outstanding social work services.” 

Slough logo edit

Embedding the hub model 

After surveying nearby authorities, the trust opted for a hub model, where a consultant social care worker is both the case holder and responsible for leading and supervising a team of social workers and administrative staff. 

“You have this group of six to seven people who basically work together and own the cases together, so they collectively work on cases,” said Clemo. “So if you have a family and they have four children and they all have different needs, you actually have several people that can help to address the needs, as opposed to one social worker having to be all things to all people.” 

Although this model has been used effectively elsewhere, the trust looked at what it considered were its ‘weak points’ in order to strengthen it in Slough. The headline improvement to the model was the need to implement greater career progression within the hub, so that staff have “a sense of where they’re going to be in the future” – such as family workers wanting to be qualified as social workers, or senior social workers aiming to be consultant social workers. 

New ways of working 

The trust retained some of the staff that used to work under the borough’s ownership, but Clemo recognised that not everybody likes to work in this type of model because “it’s a very exposing way of working”. For example, all staff must have weekly meetings with colleagues where they discuss what they’re doing and open themselves up to questioning, with all employees being able to challenge their way of working. 

“I would argue that’s very healthy: we should all be challenged about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it – but for some people, it’s quite a threatening way of working. Some social workers like to work very much on their own, doing their own thing. Some people have chosen to leave the trust because they don’t want to work in that way,” she continued. 

“Other people have left because we have raised the bar. The expectation is very much that we expect you to work at this pace, and in this way, and at this standard, and some people have struggled to get to that and have left us.” 

But recruiting new staff hasn’t been a challenge, with Clemo confident that information on the benefits of the new model – including its opportunities for career progression and qualified training – is spreading throughout nearby boroughs. There was a particular interest from newly-qualified social workers, with almost 110 applications for just 12 available posts. 

“I think the message is getting out there that we’re doing something a bit different and people are interested,” she argued, also citing the trust’s focus on systematically training staff so that they can obtain qualifications as an attractive incentive. “That’s what social workers like: it’s not just pay progression, but also development.” 

Tackling the numbers 

Going forward, the trust CEO hopes that staff will be working with Slough children “much more effectively and bringing about change” rather than being punitive with families. This is particularly important at a time when the amount of care proceedings and applications has hit an all-time high. 

“This is the highest number of children in care that we have had for 30 years,” Clemo said. “But nobody believes there is this huge epidemic of neglect, so it must be that we’re approaching relationships differently. 

“Where you have good early intervention, where you have preventative work, where you have models where you’re working closely with families, what you’re actually seeing is there are less children coming into care and fewer children on the plan. At the moment, in Slough, we don’t have huge numbers of children in care – we’re average for our statistical neighbours. But I think we could potentially have less.” 

Clear path ahead 

While the journey so far has been challenging, the path ahead looks clearer than ever. “It’s been a very, very difficult journey,” said Clemo, “but that feels a long time ago now. This is very genuine. That very challenging relationship has dissipated with the council’s commitment to children in Slough. The leader in particular, and the chief executive, absolutely said: ‘Whatever you need, Nicola, to make the trust succeed in Slough, we absolutely want to get behind you and do that’. And that’s very positive. 

“Ofsted are also starting their monitoring visits with us at the beginning of November, and I think when you’ve been inadequate for as long as Slough has been, we’re not going to transform it in a year – it’s going to take longer. 

“But I think we’ve transformed a huge amount – I’m just putting together an annual report that actually sets that out – and a huge amount has been achieved, but there is still, as everybody says in these situations, a long way to go. There is still quite a journey to travel.”





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